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Park Rapids' World of Christmas sold

Neal and Carol Holter bid farewell to the local icon of their creation this December, World of Christmas and Evergreen Park. (Jean Ruzicka/Enterprise)

PARK RAPIDS -- The Yuletide season's arrival heralds the end of an era for World of Christmas owners Neal and Carol Holter.

After nearly four decades spent engaging customers' whimsy, sating the sweet tooth and enhancing summer vacations in the amusement park, the entrepreneurs have sold the business - much to their six grandsons' woe.

"Now I can take time to shop," said Carol. "This is the first time in 38 years I won't have to go to work the day after Christmas."

The Holters arrived on the Park Rapids area mercantile scene in 1978 from Grand Forks, where they had opened Why Not Shop in 1971.

From the onset, the math major, now 72, and registered nurse, 68, conveyed a buoyant enthusiasm for retail sales, hosting a celebratory open house at the Why Not Shop in October for the holiday season ahead.

The Grand Forks shop held collectibles and fine gifts with unique German and U.S. Christmas ornaments, including pyramidal rotating Nativity scenes from East Germany.

The family, arriving at the Breeze Campground north of Park Rapids each summer, became smitten with the area.

"This was the sweetest little town," Carol said of Park Rapids' bustling Main in the '70s. "There was strength in hometowns," she said of the pre "Big-Box" era.

When the 71 Gift House came up for sale, they decided to expand their market, purchasing the shop north of Park Rapids.

Carol vividly recalls the store's debut. The night before the store was to open, Neal went to bed, but Carol worked through the night. As the sun came up, she sat on the deck with a cup of coffee, reflecting on what the future might hold.

She headed to bed, but her slumber was short lived. At 11 a.m., Neal was at her bedside. "You've got to come help me," he said of the swarm of customers arriving for the store's premiere.

The Holters and kids, Chris and Heidi, took up residence in the 36- by 60- foot building from Memorial Day to Labor Day, living in a single bedroom apartment in the back of the store. They shared the bathroom with employees.

They commuted back to Grand Forks on weekends, where their Why Not Shop continued to operate.

In 1980, they moved to Park Rapids, selling the Grand Forks store three years later.

In 1980, World of Christmas opened in Pequot Lakes. Shops began welcoming customers in Detroit Lakes in 1984 and in 1986 on Shingobee Island near Walker.

"They were good times," Neal said. "The economy was good. There was more discretionary spending. Today, we're competing with electronics."

The Sept. 11, 2001 terrorist attacks, spawning an economic downturn, prompted closing of stores, Carol said. "It became hard for small businesses to operate."

The Pequot Lakes and Walker stores remained in operation until 2003; the Detroit Lakes store closed in 2004.

"By 2005, we were back to one place," Carol said of the business that, at its peak, employed close to 90.

'I'll miss the hunt'

Meanwhile, an amusement park was evolving on the road-to-Itasca site. A nine-hole mini golf course was developed in 1979 with a train, water wars and bumper carts added to the summertime repertoire of fun.

"Evergreen Park became a destination," Neal said of visitors from the metro. Kids and dads would partake of the outdoor fun while moms shopped.

The original shop burned in 1987, on July 4. Undaunted the Holters rebuilt, expanding the store to more than five times its original size.

A snack bar and fudge- making enterprise satisfied appetites. And, despite its moniker, 50 percent of the merchandise has been non-Christmas. The store held apparel, jewelry, food, home décor, linens, art and rugs.

"We tried to change it every year," Carol said of evolving inventory.

"I will miss the hunt," she said of gift shows. "Maybe that's what I'll miss the most, the excitement of trying to determine what will please the customer."

Patrons, who arrived in number for the retirement sale, were bereaved with the news, tears welling in one woman's eyes.

"What's going to happen?" was a frequent question.

"We want it to go to the next level," Carol said. "There's room for expansion," she said of the 30-acre site, half of which is currently developed.

'A great foundation'

New owners Tom and Barb Atwood, who were introduced to the store as visitors in the area, plan to reopen the landmark in mid-April, with a modified name - Evergreen Gifts and Evergreen Fun Park.

The store will still hold Christmas collectibles, Tom said, but the name change is to attract a larger audience. Plans call for introducing environmentally friendly "green gifts" and emphasize Minnesota-made art, with artists and artisans invited to exhibit and demonstrate their work.

The Gilmore City, Iowa residents bring a background in Web design and Internet marketing. Evergreen's new Web site will be interactive, Tom said, with Facebook and Twitter utilized.

"The Holters have laid a great foundation," Tom said. "The store is part of up north vacation memories. It's a privilege to be part of the tradition."

"I think they will do a nice job," Carol said of the Atwoods and their children, who will be part of the operation.

"We'll bring our grandkids back - if they ever forgive us."